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William Shakespeare: The Problem Plays.

Although both authors of these books in the Twayne's English Authors Series seem to have received the same instructions, the results are radically different. Pearlman has very low aspirations and the undergraduates for whom his book is intended are unlikely to need an account of Shakespeare's history plays that is so elementary. Most of the book presents well-written plot reviews, with illustrative paraphrases of the action accompanied by well-chosen quotations. Pearlman is certainly intelligent, yet he holds back, as we may see from the curiously self-deprecatory tone of the Preface: "This introduction is not designed to be read from beginning to end and I cannot imagine why anyone would want to do so" (ix). I agree too wholeheartedly with the author. The best chapter, on Richard III, departs from the plot review formula to concentrate on the character of the protagonist. One discordant note in the book is in Pearlman's moral fulminations against Falstaff, who is "dishonest, opportunistic, selfish, exploitive, undisciplined, and ethically obtuse" (141), and whose actions are "reprehensible" (109), "atrocious" (114), and "loathsome" (117), as he "stumbles deeper and deeper into foolishness" (119). It is clear that Falstaff really energizes Pearlman as few other characters do.

Hillman's book, on the other hand, is an extremely personal, postmodernist study that is so complex as to be almost unsuitable for all but the brightest of undergraduates. That is a pity because Hillman has at times brilliant flashes of insight and his approach is strikingly original. In The Problem Plays, some of the discourse is devoted to the author's own problems with language, criticism, and Shakespeare's cultural status as a hegemonic author. Hillman's two earlier books, both from 1992, Intertextuality and Romance in Renaissance Drama and Shakespearean Subversion: The Trickster and the Play-text, enter significantly into his discussion of the Problem Plays and help to complicate the issues.

Basically, Hillman puts strong emphasis on the metadramatic element in Shakespeare's plays and an ever-present intertextuality by which earlier models are fused into later exploitations. Sometimes this works very well, as in the alignment of Helena in All's Well with Helena in A Midsummer Night's Dream, Mariana in Measure for Measure, and especially Portia in The Merchant of Venice. But the much-insisted-upon relation of Helena and Hamlet that opens Hillman's discussion falls flat. Similarly, the much belabored connection of Whetstone's Promos and Cassandra and Shakespeare's Measure for Measure does not produce its promised dividends, although the emphasis on Lucio in Shakespeare's play is brilliant.

Hillman is constantly provoking the reader into paradoxical argument, which may be a good thing in principle. The chapter on All's Well That Ends Well, for example, begins with the subtitle: "(Re)Enter the Intertextual Ghost of Hamlet," then proceeds: "Thanks to their protagonists' status as meta-dramatists, which in a sense renders visible and therefore contentious the process of character production, both Troilus and Hamlet offer analyses - in the literal sense of a resolution into component parts - of the convention of military misogyny" (54). One could argue with virtually every line of this quotation: Are the protagonists indeed metadramatists? Is the metadramatic the basis of character production? How does it render character production contentious? Need we interpret "analyses" as a "resolution into component parts"? How does all this establish the convention of military misogyny? Hillman is on to something important when he stresses the profound misogyny of Troilus and Cressida, yet in All's Well he seems to attack Helena as manipulative:

"[S]he never displays the slightest sign of caring whether or not he wants her" and "the heroine's machinations match the quality of her love" (67). In Measure for Measure Hillman is quite sensible of Isabella's eroticism, which is hardly so covert as most critics seem to think. In 2.4.100-4, Isabella is not shy about telling Angelo "under what circumstances she would take off her clothes" (100).

All this is heady stuff, and Hillman's subtlety can be very engaging even when (probably especially when) he is teasing us with high-flown possibilities (or impossibilities). Both the introduction and conclusion show the author's command of his historical topic in the review of criticism and its relation to productions of the Problem Plays. The consistent urge of critics and producers to deproblematize these plays works against any competent revelation of what they are about. Hillman's last words are a caution to critics: the problematic nature of Shakespeare's Problem Plays "ultimately consists in their capacity to demonstrate . . . the chameleon-like nature of meaning - literary and otherwise" (150).

MAURICE CHARNEY Rutgers University
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Author:Charney, Maurice
Publication:Renaissance Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1996
Words:750
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